Ask the trade: What to do and what not to do as a sales rep

In a long overdue first for CI.N we are daring to charter the territory of what does and does not make a welcome supplier sales rep in bicycle stores. Read on for praises and horror stories alike…

Related: Looking for a sales rep? Check out our directory of UK agents here.




From a bike shop perspective, what are some welcome traits of good sales reps?

Michelle Chapell, On your Bike

I’ve been in the bicycle business 20 years and my husband 38. Throughout our time things have shifted drastically when it comes to the approach to repping. I have a terrible reputation; when people turn up to rep me out I tell them to go away if they have not forewarned.

There are less of the old school reps who just turn up and start talking now, I find. There are maybe five reps that have earned my blessing to arrive without appointment. As shop owners we are mature enough to locate product if needed, of course. There also used to be a trend whereby the wrong staff would be handed stuff by the reps as a sweetener, which could mean the hardworking guys were not always seeing the benefit. That was nipped in the bud a few years ago.

Those that we have worked with for years – our Whyte and Trek reps, for example – succeed because they are efficient and I know they’re here to benefit us. They will arrive, take a quick stock take of what’s left and we go from there. We will look at orders, issues and then deal with returns if possible. A structure is productive. The bike industry is squeezed on margin and time so every minute has to bring money to the till and great service. Interaction with customer has to be so positive to stop them potentially going online. That’s difficult; worse in London, I think. Local bike shops have the microscope on us always, so reps can’t have staff tied up when unplanned.

It has to be said that some are a pleasure to have in. Our Zyro rep is excellent. He arrives, gets a coffee and runs the stock take. I’m a great believer you are only as good as your last job. If you order me the wrong stock I won’t order from you again. Too often I have to get on phone to talk to the supplier directly to resolve problems and that’s not always easy.

William Bain, Bicycle Repair

I smile when they enter the shop, so they’ll know if I think they’re any good!

Reps have to evolve, as bike shops have had to evolve. The days of reading out part numbers, jotting them down on a notepad or squinting into a reps’ 12-inch laptop should be in the past. All my business is B2B, that way I can keep track of everything. Good reps should be brand ambassadors, have on hand advice, plus effective ways to sell products. Tips on successful merchandising of the product is handy too. Samples don’t hurt either.

The key is to be able to explain how a product could fit into the shop’s range. To be fair, the reps who do or did come to my shop, that’s what they do already.

The story goes, about a bicycle shop, where the reps have to do a presentation to all the members of the shop, and explain why they should change to that product instead of the product they already stock. That made the reps work hard to get their product in the door. That shop had great products; each one had earned its place on the shelves.

On the reverse side of the coin, what traits guarantee you will not give a sales rep your time?

Michelle Chapell, On your Bike

Strategically, reps can teach some staff bad habits. I don’t make myself available for some that have bad habits; I just order product online when I need. If I ever have a problem I go to customer service manager direct, generally they are good listeners and iron out problems. I have a lot of respect for those people.

I used to be customer services director, so when first came in to industry I was appalled. I came from technology industry and couldn’t believe how backwards it was back then. In the five to ten years most recent it has improved a lot. I tend to take a stand when issues do arise, so for the supplier it’s important to drill in a baseline standard to operate to. It is not the old boys network it perhaps once was.

I’m a business person, not a cyclist as such, so previously I had found not being part of that gang affected conversation.

William Bain, Bicycle Repair

Please do not offer my customers your advice in my realm. Thank you.

For new businesses entering the market for whom you have no prior reference, what’s the best way to secure your attention for a first visit?

Michelle Chapell, On your Bike

For a new brand I’m a great believer in the personal approach from a sales rep. Don’t send emails and phone ten times as I won’t give it the time. It’s a lack of time that is a key problem for shops.

Those that have been successful have demonstrated clear belief in the product. If we see that we may give wall up space and trial; if doesn’t work take it back and we shake hands and move on. Curiously, a lot won’t do this. Those products that have gone this route have sometimes become great sellers. What have you to lose?

The second way is to bring me in a sample and let us try it out ourselves. My team will use it, ask customers about it. They’re the ones we have stocked. Existing relationships sometimes get a new brand in the door, but complete bikes are much tougher. That trial period is make or break. Sale or return allows a risk assessment, which we need. An untested item can’t be a cash flow burden.

William Bain, Bicycle Repair

If it’s genuinely interesting and has a story that’s something I can use to sell it to the customer. Therefore, I need to know from the sales rep the precise reason why the product came to market and who for.

It’s also nice to know whether a product has any eco-credentials, whether it’s from a new start up, or is UK made. It can take time at first to sell a new product, so fully understanding the product helps in order to advocate for its use.